Left - Michael Sutherland and Andy Madden. Cover - Alan Long and Andy Madden
I'm at a loss. I don't know who adapted John Steinbeck's moving semi-autobiographical 1937 novella, Of Mice & Men, for the stage. But I do know it's been kicking around almost as long as the book and, the year after its publication, was selected as Best Play by the New York Drama Critics' Circle.
The outstandingly successful, 40-year-old Epicentre Theatre Company, resident at Chatswood's intimate lyric theatre, the Zenith, had a bright idea in engaging French-Canadian Judith Bedard to direct it, consolidating its recent, critically-acclaimed string of sold-outs: A Midsummer Night’s Dream; The Laramie Project; To Kill A Mockingbird; The Life of Galileo and, earlier this year, Williamson’s Money and Friends. Not only have these attracted punters from beyond Sydney's insular lower north shore, but beyond greater Sydney. Bedard is regarded as something of an adept, especially when it comes to realising the finer dramatic points of American classics, like Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and The Glass Menagerie, which she directed for Cronulla Arts Theatre. She's no stranger to Epicentre, of course, having written and directed Don Quixote, which played at The Haven Amphitheatre last year.
There wasn't much more than dreams to sustain a man in California during the depression (the last big one, not the GFC). Best mates, George and Lennie, wander the highways, byways and backroads of smalltown America. But what's that got to do with 2010 Australia? George & Lennie were disenfranchised migrants. They hankered then, as many do now, for no more than their own plot. George has the smarts, but Lennie's intellectually disabled and, surprise, surprise, surprise, victimised as a result: run out of town for, allegedly, indulging his penchant for petting soft things. Their dream comes crashing down when Lennie accidentally kills the wife of a ranch-owner's son. A lynch mob sets out and George, as Lennie's self-appointed protector, is driven to extreme action. As always, desperate times call for desperate measures.
It's an undeniably challenging script: a tough call for any ensemble of actors. Bedard's hands-on experience as an actor (she graduated from the National Theater School of Canada, in '96) shows, I think, in the way she directs: there are no scenes in which any actor seems in the slightest uncomfortable, or in which he or she looks unnatural.
The first eye-opener is Wayne McDaniel, as the (literally) back-broken black man, Crooks. San Fran-born, a drama grad from Cal State and Australian NBL AllStar, Mc's also an earthmoving singer, with a caramelised voice as rich as midwestern soil. Crooks is the silent, segregated witness to the narrative's tragic unfolding, lurking constantly in the shadows. McDaniel is convincing in the role, reflecting pain, torment, loneliness, desperation and deep, deep sadness.
Andy Madden is a recent graduate of the ACTT, but were it not for his obvious youth, one could be easily duped into believing he has much more experience. His accent was on the money and unwavering. And his performance overall was equally consistent; note-perfect, really. As George, his veritable brotherhood with Lennie is played with carefully-measured sensitivity.
Cheyne Fynn is near-brilliant as Lennie, having invented a studied physical demeanour and mode of speech. His studies at the Australian Academy of Dramatic Art appear to have put him in good stead for his first-ever Epicentre outing. I'm sure there'll be many more, given this memorable and accomplished performance which, come to think of it, puts me in mind of a youthful Leo di Caprio, in 'What's Eating Gilbert Grape?'
Donny Muntz learnt acting from Hayes Gordon and it shows. To create Candy, I suspect he might have recalled Walter Brennan. No bad thing. While his diction sometimes became a little mangled and he seemed to get off to a shaky start, he settled-in, eliciting profound sympathy in a deeply affecting characterisation. Candy has lost his hand, his dog and is clinging to one last hope.
Alan Long, as the Boss, while he has a commanding presence, seems a little out of his depth and his on-off accent is distracting. His stage son, Curley, played by Oliver Clarke, suffers a similar fate, though he's 'very handy' in the fight scene and, all things considered, gives a commendable performance.
Katherine Shearer is compelling for the restraint she shows as Curley's faithless wife: rather than play a full-on Monroesque seductress, she taunts with feigned (or perhaps real) innocence, rather than girly coyness. But one button on her blouse too many left undone and a certain languid posture carries the role.
Adam Dunn is impressive as Slim, in many ways the widely-respected, principled conscience of the play. His accent holds up as robustly as the rest of his character.
Adrian Twigg & Michael Sutherland, as Carlson & Whit, were on their mettle as well.
As much of the artfulness of this production is offstage, however. The set is striking and effective: stacked palettes suffice to create a rustic barnyard aesthetic; hay is strewn on the floor; a sculptural 'tree' alludes to the sharp, hard edges of the times and the tale. Clever backlighting glows blue and pink, denoting sunrises, sunsets, days and nights, comings and goings. A hanging lamp harshly illuminates more intimate, confessional moments, such as in Crooks' room, next to the manure heap. Bedard and assistant director Martin Bell share the honours for set design; John Harrison kudos for lighting. Tanya Woodland has dressed all the actors like hayseeds, too. Damon Anderson designed the tree, which is really a work of art in itself.
Bedard and co have managed to exact all the pathos that is built-in to this momentous work. If Epicentre can keep up this standard, it's good for another 40 years, at least. More of you should be there, to see for yourselves.
Epicentre Theatre Company presents
Of Mice and Men
from John Steinbeck’s classic novel
Directed by Judith Bedard
Venue: Zenith Theatre, cnr Railway and McIntosh Streets, Chatswood
Dates: 5 - 19 June 2010
Matinees: Saturday June 12 at 2 pm, Sunday June 13 at 5 pm
Tickets: $25 & $20. High School Students $17 (booking fees apply)
Bookings: 9777 7547 | www.epicentretheatre.org.au